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One Big Happy Family: How to Avoid an Estate Dispute

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Picture this:

Your long, rich life is coming to an end. Surrounded by loving family you hold hands, lock eyes, say your goodbyes, and peacefully leave this world.

Then…your family members declare war on one another. It's weeks later and someone is disgruntled about the distributions from your Will. Old wounds between siblings reopen, perhaps never to be healed. Worse yet is the scenario where you've left no Will at all. Your assets are distributed according to your state's laws of intestacy...meaning family you would have provided for (like step-children) are inadvertently disinherited.

Where do these disagreements end? They end in litigation, where attorney fees, court costs and the passage of time erode your estate, and everyone loses something.

Sadly, this scenario is not as unlikely as it might seem. The news is full of stories of celebrity Will contests, like those involving the estates of Anna Nicole Smith, Gary Coleman, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, and Aretha Franklin, not to mention the infamous Howard Hughes estate (Google these). Closer to home, you’ve probably heard of a family in your own community that has been torn apart over the distribution of a loved one’s estate.

How do these disagreements arise and, more importantly, what can you do now to save your family the trauma of a dispute over your estate after you are gone?

Here are some factors that can increase the likelihood of family discord:

- Having made no plans for the distribution of your assets upon your death

- Incomplete or last-minute estate planning

- DIY or other estate planning documents that are ambiguously worded

- Second or later marriages, especially where there are multiple sets of children

- Disinheriting a child without explanation

- Family businesses with no written succession plan in place

- Existing hostilities among family members

- Failing to communicate your wishes to your family while you are alive

While there is no way to absolutely eliminate the chance of a dispute over your estate, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of such a conflict:

- NOW IS THE TIME to create an estate plan that addresses all of your wishes and concerns

- Do not leave estate planning to the last minute, when you are at death's door

- Establish a pattern of updating your estate plan whenever your circumstances change

- Keep the lines of communication open, so that your family knows what to expect

- If you have a family business put a clear, workable succession plan in place, in writing

- Work to maintain healthy family relationships during your lifetime

- Perhaps the most important step you can take to avoid disputes like those described above is to establish a relationship with an experienced Estate Planning attorney. He or she can take all of your concerns and desires into account and draft documents that are clear and unambiguous, discouraging intra-family disputes

If you are concerned about potential family conflict, your attorney can suggest a number of strategies to help avoid this kind of turmoil. For example, your attorney might suggest you include an in terrorem (or “no contest”) clause in your estate plan that disinherits anyone who contests the document. An experienced attorney can help you put together a plan that addresses all of your needs while minimizing the risk of conflict after you are gone.

After completing their planning, our clients describe feeling:

- Relieved

- Informed

- Confident

- Cared for

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